Diane Sawyer's Jewish Visions
By Doron Kornbluth
I was fifteen years old and engaging in one of my favorite pastimes - watching the television news. It was the fall of 1984, in the midst of the re-election campaign of then President Ronald Reagan. Not yet jaded by the political process, I had become even more of a news junkie than I normally was, following the polls, the predictions, the publicity, the slogans, the commercials, and everything else that goes along with an American presidential election campaign.
It was Sunday night and as the news ended a few minutes before 7 p.m., my family gathered around for what had somehow become part of our family tradition - watching CBS's 60 Minutes. I should confess that I've probably seen hundreds of 60 Minutes shows over the years and sat through thousands of hours of television news. And yet, from all those hours, there is only one "story" that I actually remember, only one that I think had a profound impact on my psyche. While details may be slightly off, the gist of it is etched into my mind.
60 Minutes was, as I remember, structured very neatly. First you see the hands on the stopwatch clicking, and then you hear the voice describing the three stories to be covered that episode. Next you saw the reporters introduce themselves. After a commercial break came the main stories, punctuated by occasional commercials. At the end of the hour, the little funny guy with the annoying voice found some funny quirk of the postal system or similar oddity to complain about, and that was it until next week. Show after show, year after year, this was the system. On that Sunday in 1984, I remember a rare change from the standard structure of the show. Diane Sawyer, the first female host of 60 Minutes, appeared with Mike Wallace for a short discussion near the end of the show. He introduced his colleague as having a fascinating story to tell, which indeed it was.
She shared a conversation that she had just had which had resulted from a recent 60 Minutes segment on the campaign. Her first report was a long, critical analysis of Reagan's first term in office. Viewers saw pictures of the President visiting a homeless shelter, while Diane Sawyer's voice dubbed over the images explained that Reagan had reduced funding to such institutions while the number of poor had skyrocketed during his term in office. Viewers saw Reagan glad-handing with African-Americans while Sawyer described his attacks on affirmative action and other programs dear to the African-American community. Viewers also saw Reagan with schoolchildren while simultaneously they heard Sawyer rail against his massive cuts in school funding. Her report continued in like fashion for eight minutes (a lifetime in television terms) and by the end of it, the honesty, credibility, and reputation of Reagan's administration had, according to Sawyer, suffered serious damage. She was sure that she would never be allowed to set foot in the White House again, and even feared that her press passes would be revoked.
Dreading the awaited phone call from the White House Press Secretary, Ms. Sawyer was quite surprised when he called to thank her for her segment and offered to help her in any way he could. "What?!" she exclaimed. "I spent eight minutes on prime time television attacking you! Why are you thanking me?" she asked. "Diane," he replied, "you don't understand. No one listens to the news. People watch the news. It is television and they are viewers. You gave us eight minutes of golden images. We couldn't have paid for better publicity. We owe you one." She was in shock On this follow-up segment, Ms. Sawyer was relating the important lesson she learned: we are a visual society, and what you say is at best only of secondary importance.
I've kept that story in mind since 1984 and told it often when trying to help people understand the importance of visuals in the Jewish tradition. Not only does the famous and central Shema prayer warn about "going after our eyes," but in fact our tradition is full of guidelines as to what to look at it, and what not to. Pornography is of course forbidden, but more surprising to some may be other visual guidelines that our tradition offers. Pre-dating the thousands of studies that now link viewing of television to anger, violent tendencies, and other behavioral problems, Jewish sources teach us not to look at an angry person, let alone volunteer to watch bloodshed. We want to be sensitive to others' pain, and seeing death as a constant on television takes away from that sensitivity.
Furthermore, in our contemporary consumer-oriented society, the early commentaries' teachings on the Talmud (tractate Megillah 12a) should be especially considered - they explain that jealousy is caused by physically seeing things, not just knowing about them. So if you want to help yourself lead a simpler life, don't drive around the richer neighborhoods of town or watch shows about people with lots of money - it will affect you, make you jealous of what others have, unhappy with your lifestyle, and less likely to leave work at 5 p.m. to spend time with your kids.
And don't conclude that visual-thinking is only about the "don'ts." In order to help your kids grow up with deeply imbedded Jewish feelings, let them see Jewish life - not just hear about it. If they see you give tzedakkah and go to a weekly Torah lesson, these activities will be real to them and chances are they will want to emulate them. If they grow up seeing Jewish images around the house, that will define for them what is "normal" and they'll want to live that way also. For as Diane Sawyer shared during Ronald Reagan's reelection campaign, we are a visual world and what we see defines what we think.
Doron Kornbluth edited Jewish Matters and co-edited (with his wife Sarah Tikvah) Jewish Women Speak, both of which can be found at www.jewishmatters.com
By Doron Kornbluth
When my wife and I decided to settle in Israel, we set about to find the "right" apartment. It was a thrilling and challenging experience, as well as a historic process - I'm the first member of my family to own property in the Jewish Homeland in two thousand years! We wanted to make the right decision, and so visited and considered many possibilities. One breezy afternoon, in response to our questions about closing in the balcony and expanding the living room, our realtor remarked with a smile: "You Americans are always thinking BIG. How can I enlarge the apartment? Can I dig out a basement? Can I build on the roof? Israelis almost never ask these questions and with you, they come only a few moments after 'Hi, How are you?'"
We laughed and guessed that perhaps we were spoiled: America is a large country and its private residences are quite large, while, Israel is a small country and, despite impressive economic growth, average Israeli homes are on the whole, shall we say, "cozy."
However, later on in the day, as I reflected on the realtor's comments, I realized that our big-thinking referred to more than just the size of an apartment. The entire Western World, almost, is caught up in Big-Think. We discuss global events. We read and hear about the lifestyles of the rich and famous. We look for high-profile jobs with large and growing companies. Movie stars, politicians, athletes, musicians, and television actors - none of whom would recognize us on the street - are nevertheless quite central to our lives. The corporate tycoon is, incredibly, more respected in our culture than the high school teacher. After all, the tycoon gets paid big numbers, while the teacher does not.
But is bigger actually better?
Paul Johnson's fascinating book The Intellectuals is an amazing expose of the hypocrisy of many of the "progressive" intelligentsia, the "greatest minds" of the modern world, including Rousseau, Hemingway, Tolstoy, and many more. In the lives of these famous personalities, the same pattern reveals itself over and over again: Famous thinker writes, talks, and preaches about grand ideas; his or her vision would change the world and solve the world's problems, if only society would listen; the thinker is "in," radical, and revered, as he or she attracts a huge following, and is proclaimed a visionary against the primitive understandings of ancient traditions, norms, and beliefs; the thinker dies a martyr, or at least a hero, and is resurrected in high school courses, college dissertations, and the entire "intellectual" canon. Yet Johnson wrote the book to reveal an amazing correlation - it seems that often the bigger and more radical their ideas, the more morally bankrupt their lives were. Almost without exception, these great thinkers, these "defenders of humanity" - full of lofty ideas - lied, cheated, stole, plagiarized, repeatedly cheated on their spouses, abandoned their children, and so on. Their ideas were big, their vision broad, their sights high, but as a rule they were the kind of people you'd get up and move across town in order to avoid.
How is it that such "great" people could think so big and act so small? Judaism teaches that it wasn't a coincidence. It was, in fact, because they thought so big - or, better, because they only thought so big - that they acted so small! The truth is that most of us can only concentrate on a limited amount of things at a time, as Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler points out in the Michtav M'Eliahu. A person who over-focuses on "Important People" or "Important Theories" will almost necessarily under-focus on the little old lady across the street, or the needs of one's spouse. Someone who is so absorbed in the mega-concerns of the corporation and its organizational needs might easily fail to notice their sick neighbor who needs a helping hand to do the shopping.
A yeshiva student once saw a great rabbi stop in the street, pause for a moment, and then turn around and go back to the study hall from where he had just left. The rabbi was only inside a moment, then returned on his way. The student was perplexed and managed to find out that his revered teacher had only returned to the study hall in order to return a book to the shelves. Think about it - the rabbi (known as the Stipler) was one of the greatest rabbis of his generation, with enormous pressures on his time. He regularly dealt with many issues of vital importance to the survival of the Jewish People. Yet he felt it was important for him to go back and return the book he had forgotten to put on the shelves, because other peoples' time was also important. He was a big person who didn't ignore small things.
There is a traditional Jewish understanding that you measure how big a person is, meaning how refined and developed their personal character traits are, by how they deal with the small things in life. Of course Jews are supposed to be concerned about the entire world, and knowledgeable about things that affect it. And sometimes one can help many individuals by acting on a grand scale rather than an individual one, but it is all too easy to focus on big matters concerning humanity as a whole, and ignore small matters such as one's spouse, children, neighbors, and colleagues.
Judaism teaches that you measure a person by the small things, not the big ones. Is a person honest? Caring? Responsible? Is he or she trying to improve their character, to find meaning in everyday life? If so, even their names never appear in the newspaper, and even if their salary is low, they are not small people. Rather, in terms of the things that really count, they are even more than big - they are great.
Doron Kornbluth edited Jewish Matters and co-edited (with his wife Sarah Tikvah) Jewish Women Speak.(www.jewishmatters.com)